There was a time when architecture was naturally architecture for all, determined by economics and social developments. In a sense, during the last Biennale, Jean-Louis Cohen was the mouthpiece for this political impetus, the mobilization of industry, the creativity necessary to extend as widely as possible the effects of architecture. We were driven by this positivism. The work of Gropius and Taut – tens of thousands of housing units, for all, built to optimum quality –, Alvar Aalto’s humanistic commitments, the generous inventiveness of Prouvé, the extraordinary effervescence around housing which still prevailed twenty years ago, this is our legacy. It must be said that our heritage was created in a century marred by two wars, which left us, twice, totally bled dry and devastated, requiring us to rebuild and grow, at full speed. Remember that Le Corbusier’s Domino house is a response to the disasters of the first month of the “Great War” around the Belgian border. Almost a century ago, we found ourselves in the same situation as today’s refugees left behind. Now lulled into a false sense of dwindling comfort, we need Aravena to shake us up, and restore the necessity of this past engagement as an obvious path.

 

Of course, he speaks from another country, another world. In Chile, despite a vast wealth of natural resources, inequalities between the rich and the very poor are a starting  point, a state of affairs, and not, as in Europe, the beginning of a long slump which every day of the current “economic crisis”  confirms: yes, the gaps are widening,  the middle  class is weakening, and some regions are left behind.

We recognise our commitments in Alejandro Aravena’s comments. With a certain distance: which  unique argument  can France, in her Biennale pavilion, bring to the debate that he is so ardently calling for?

By giving this news report from the front, in France, we want to show how the economic condition that is now here to stay – growing inequality,  financialisation, and competition  between  cities  on a global  scale – is creating  new organisations with  a shift  in the direction  of wealth. This is a resolutely positive approach. We do not believe in the disequilibrium caused by competing  territories. Rather, we think that, everywhere, there are vast resources, complementarities, latent values we can harness, reveal, and fertilize.

This is one of the roles of today’s architecture. Public policies wither away, contemporary urban planning brings together real estate products whose façade makeover hardly manages to hide small-minded  standardization and, here and there, two or three great fashion designers get expensive illusions with a few hundred million dollars. We want to report on everything else, the less visible, yet emerging everywhere, in all the regions, and which reveals unsuspected  riches.

Ordinary architecture, familiar Territories

It is true that exceptional “large-scale projects”, the new districts of the richest big cities, attract  all the attention.  As such, these projects  are not an issue: major cities undeniably drive innovation to a large extent when they are lucky enough to be governed by enlightened councilors and have sufficient resources to finance it. From architect  Jean Nouvel  to the Local  Architecture Network (LAN), from Île de Nantes to Paris-Batignoles, this is the side of French architecture  visible from abroad. But this focus suggests that the rest of the territory is left to a system of automatic urban development,  barely regulated by still immature planning, where architecture would rarely be used and if so without collective consultation and carelessly. This may be due to the impression made by monotonous housing estates or commercial areas.

We think  that every region,  every location has its  own  resources  and  assets.  There are extraordinary latent  qualities  in all the country’s ordinary sites. All we need to do is pay attention to them, nurture them, reveal them…

This is true for all the fields, economy included:  by repeating  that wealth, related to globalization,  is created by the big cities, we don’t know what to think anymore of the other places, not even within those big cities, those places which accommodate, often very precariously, all the people who are excluded from earning an income or revenue[1].

It is true of architecture:  we celebrate “star architects” and expensive projects so much that we forget that architecture delivers sim- ple, adapted, shared and effective answers in the majority of more ordinary and more mod- est situations, most of the places where we live, where we work.

This is what we are talking about here.

Architecture concerns everyone

It concerns everyone, all citizens but also all trades: for us, showing the value of these transformations is a democratic manifesto: we must address  today’s  world  as passionate, committed  actors, open to debate and action, curious about innovation, and not as awe-struck  spectators,  as mere consumers of images.

Hundreds of projects happen on all territories, for all kinds of purposes.

On all the territories: villages and agricultural and natural areas, suburbs, suburban municipalities halfway between town and country- side, the forgotten  gaps of large towns and cities…

For all uses, none of which should be ignored by architecture:  housing – especially  social housing – and the facilities we visit, but also retail areas, work places, tourist sites, places dedicated to transportation, infrastructure, energy production, agricultural  production, and public  spaces.  Workplaces,  for example, played a decisive  role in the history  of architecture: heralding modernity in the 18th century, they brought the lightness and modularity of metalwork in the 19th century, and gossamer transparency  on the threshold  of the 20th century. Similarly, many contemporary topics  may further rejuvenate architecture – and vice versa.

Architecture is a public concern

These projects  are sometimes  modest, and draw their quality from their discretion, their restraint. They are not exaggerated expressions,  mismanagement or ego trips; instead, they provide a well-balanced solution that is simple and pleasant for their inhabitants, their visitors, or their users. Their “public interest” quality is undeniable. It is not the result of the architect’s work alone – who does take his or her share of responsibility – but of a collective effort, a shared intelligence.

Sometimes, these projects look like they have always been there, supported by age-old knowledge. Others challenge standards, by rethinking  design or construction methods. Architecture thus emerges from a fine balance between a craft’s tradition and innovation.

Countless examples, across all territories

When the small  town  of Bouvron  built its “pôle enfance”  (a complex  including  a school,  crèche,  and after school  facilities), it took the risk of upsetting  the norm: architects Belenfant and Daubas drew a unique, light and inexpensive metal structure, inspired from hangars. The association  “la terre ferme” then helped give the school a proper body based on mud bricks sourced within the site: the children themselves got their hands dirty, with the surprising result of having them form a chain, passing hundreds of bricks from hand to hand, and thus contributing to building their own place. In today’s  regulatory environment,  this experiment  is a salutary miracle, and we can guess the amount of courage it must have required – from architects, but also the citizens, elected officials and enterprises – to stray from tradition.

In Marseilles,  “between Baumettes  prison and the Calanques national park,” architect Yvan Pluskwa laid out on the slope, between the high-rise  social  housing  of the “cités” and the multitude  of boroughs  forming  the city, a set of platforms  reserved for sports, relaxation, and why not idleness and contemplation:  Marseilles’  magnificent landscape, between the sea and mountains, is the perfect base to sing the praises of the area. In a world where many projects  compartmentalize, separate, protect  by railings or walls, this project is a way through, a public space that is crisscrossed, shared by thousands of neighbours who  would  otherwise  have little opportunity to pass each other on the streets.  In that  case, too,  great  collective skill must have been required, without  ever denying the strength of the topography  and leveling, to create a contemporary square in the process, a successful reinterpretation of the Provence square that reflects today’s uses and cultural diversity: the legacy of the melting pot is maintained.  The same could be said about the “futsal” designed by CAB to be established on the banks of the Paillon River near Nice. A popular district is reunited with its natural environment in a playful way as the concrete walls seem modeled on the pebbles found in the stream, while the views open on to the slopes of La Turbie mountains.

New configurations for production sites fit in the urban fabric  in a way that their zoning as “business  areas” used to deny them. As if, in this hedonistic  world where every- thing is devoted  to idle pleasure and iterative shopping, work had to be placed outside the city, and remain hidden and remote. In the south of France, once again, the artisanal city  of Valbonne was a pioneer  of this revival, showcasing the craft of plumbers and bricklayers.  Near Nantes, it is now possible to visit “organic vegetables processing workshops”, whose wicker  basket inspired envelope designed by the architects  Mabire and Reich is exposed  to the inhabitants  of Saint-Herblain.

We made a choice: the above-listed  examples are not presented in detail in the exhibition. We wanted to show that beyond the few projects we selected for this exhibition, there is a multitude  of experiments  which  occur, more or less everywhere, and in all aspects.

Similarly, schools of architecture  or consult- ant architects  have a wealth of ongoing projects, ideas and practical experiences that are deeply changing the way we do things, while exploring  new topics.  Architecture schools are doing  a remarkable,  pioneering  job, in particular  with regard to rural and suburban areas, but also in relation to housing for the most disadvantaged  populations,  their theoretical approach to solving the problems of slums and precarious housing.

Let’s change habits, and talk about this incredible wealth, these ordinary stories that interest us all. Let’s refocus the public debate on regional planning, on the design of the places where we live!

New riches

All these experiments show that there is a “new wealth”, which should not be valued merely in monetary terms. These collectively led projects  involve democratic  alternatives to financial globalization,  exchanges of another kind. They do not necessarily clash with the mainstream of spatial development  economics, in particular with what is at stake at the heart of large cities; instead, they complement it[2], go hand in hand with it, and contribute to its innovation if need be.

This new wealth consists of local resources, reconfigured exchanges and civic democracy.

Local resources

When assessing wealth, the latent and active resources of certain areas are gene- rally overlooked: food, water, raw materials and energy are not found in large cities. Yet, some local projects harness these resources usefully  and profitably, sometimes  for the benefit  of the richest  parts of the territory. For example,  since the Greater Paris area lost its last sawmill  a few years ago, despite having extensive  forests,  it has to rely on the strength and the inventiveness of the other regions every time it requires the use of timber. Tendon, the small village of the Vosges mountains  whose commitment we are presenting,  therefore  has something  to contribute to the “Greater Paris”. Not only are these material, natural and energy resources, they are also human capital:  the territory  is a living repository  of know-how,  a source of inventiveness.

Reconfigured exchanges

Isn’t the quality of exchanges, whose outcome  is the effective  transformation of a place, as such, a form of wealth? We are drawing  this assumption from the work of some economists, like André Orléan [3]. Doesn’t focusing on financial values mess up our judgement? It is normal, for example, that the pressure of obtaining return and capital gains on land, and the effects  of “proprietarism[4]“ lead,  in big  cities,  to  the  sale of housing units for double, even four times (in Paris), the actual value which was invested in their design  and their construction? The rest is devoted  to expenses, mainly consisting of financial risk, but also land rent and simple real estate capital gains… In other territories, where investment is much closer to the productive value allocated to the building, we believe that most of the added value lies in the effects of the exchanges from the project. Take the example of this company involved in the village of Chaliers, which enhanced its expertise following the construction of public spaces, a bonus resulting from collective choices made by the architect, as well as the technicians and the elected officials.

Civic democracy

If there is a “crisis”, it is first and fore- most political. The rest is but lasting change in our living conditions. The political  crisis, however, does seem real: we find it difficult to express the collective interest, to calmly face the contradictions resulting from any healthy society, and to turn them into a political issue, in other words a subject for debate, followed by arbitration,  with clear rules. The “bottom up” trend is a symptom, but we do not think it rules out stronger commitment  on the part of elected  officials.  All the experiments  we report  illustrate  this  threefold  movement: the accountability of professional actors  – who, in particular, accept the share of risk of innovation –, a higher degree of participation from citizens – through self-build project even sometimes –, and the clarity of the political message,  the common  interest,  conveyed by elected officials.  This evolution is also a resource: it has a democratic  “value”. In this day and age, it’s not insignificant.

 

Revival of the collective

Lastly, the projects  described bear witness to the strength of “collectives”, what we share: the pride of our past, a public space, the use of a place, shared design,  natural resources, urban practices, etc. There might not be a price on the enjoyment of such collectives, but their use bears considerable value.

The responsibility of architecture: to enable transformations, meetings, stories

When in its rightful  place, neither more nor less, architecture plays its part in creating these new riches.

Transformations

In the ten sites explored by photographers of the collective “France(s) Territoire Liquide”, a metamorphosis has taken place that is both subtle and radically transforming.  Very often it shows through on a latent resource: local knowledge and talent,  an element of the geography  or the landscape.  New uses are possible. Meanwhile, the area is casually updated. And improved: thanks to demanding, careful and delicate design, the site is transformed  for the better. Even though not necessarily explicit, the difference is quite obvious from using the site, and comparing the perception  of a “before” and “after”.  We can feel that something has indeed changed. It’s like before, yet better…

Meetings, stories

These transformations create stories that everyone can understand.  Architecture contributes to writing stories which get much bigger as tens of other people – elected officials,  citizens,  workers,  engineers  – build onto them. As we meet in the context of the project,  these stories  tell us about  present issues, current problems. They are optimistic: yes, solutions can be found. It’s all about commitment, precision, care, and exchange.

In Colombes, a large municipality  within the Greater Paris area, a collective has set up a crop garden in the heart of a popular dis- trict. Hundreds of people meet there, as the urban field becomes public space, a place to exercise citizenship,  to try out another way of life: more frugal, without  compromising on conviviality  and solidarity.  Here, the little person becomes responsible for the big one. The fight against climate change is something people can do in their everyday activities, even within cities.

In an almost opposite landscape, half-way up the cliff face looking onto the panorama of the Puy-de-Dôme, young architects are clearing a quarry and gradually  colonizing  this land not suitable for building by erecting tasteful cabins. Too often flouted, the focus on the landscape  – which  is the main resource  in this case – gives this place a new purpose. The huts become lodgings, and their designers take on the function of friendly managers. This other form of tourism,  which is subtle, low-impact and rooted in the area, breathes new life in the hamlet.

Ever since Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and the Enlightenment, industry has been the place where architecture would redefine itself: restored  lightness  in the  nineteenth  century,  sheer  walls  of  the  modernity of  the early twentieth. Today, the repetitive  alignment of disembodied boxes is not inevitable. Production sites can once again become drivers and iconic. A farm settles in an Alpine valley, and highlights the fragmented pattern of its recent occupation, echoing each house.

The legacy of modernistic commitments, the “large  housing  complexes” provided  a solution to the need for mass housing. Even though  controversial, they still remain part of the housing solution  as an available and often generous resource,  provided  that we are capable, with the limited means at hand, of giving  it a new lease of life adapted  to today’s residents. Three towers of the Hauts-de-Rouen have been completely transformed without  losing their architectural simplicity: they serve a purpose, but with dignity.

Everywhere, housing estates are sprawling, the antipode of chic but expensive housing in the city centres. In spite of using large stretches of farm land and reducing flows, for many people these houses are a reasonably priced solution. Without contempt  yet offset appropriately, a few modest houses clustered at the edge of the Brière marshes near Saint- Nazaire acclimatize individual housing into an extraordinary landscape: it’s efficient, without resentment for the neighbours.

A remote municipality  in the Margeride district of the Cantal region had to upgrade the underground  piping networks  for thirty residents of its main village Capitalising again on the wonders of technology and going against tradition, the town council decided to take advantage of the works to create a new public space. Almost nothing has changed, yet everything is different: with minimum impact but extreme care, the village houses find themselves overlooking the extraordinary landscape offered by the bend in the Truyère River. Magic created by an excavator.

Every day, millions of us commute from home to work, stopping along the way at the school, the pool or the supermarket. These daily trips take us across the rather dull stretch of roads, roundabouts and carparks, in a north – south direction,  as if a more friendly welcome was reserved for big cities. Now, sure, the bakery is located  on the side of a road. But, as in Neuville-sur-Seine, it can also become a worthy landmark, a stronghold  of the suburban mosaic.

The suburban countryside blends fields, meadows, infrastructure  and housing devel- opments. This means that, now, agriculture is part of the economic activity  of cities. Farmers are no longer distant producers, settled in what looks like another world, but people like you and me, whose work could – help – contribute to urban wealth. The con- temporary  farmhouse  takes a hybrid  form, combining storage and production  with a life that it claims to be domestic.

While the Greater Paris area – twelve million inhabitants – no longer has any sawmills, territories covered mainly with forests, like the Vosges, are struggling to develop an efficient timber industry which would enable the construction of more environmentally friendly buildings. There, a village  has capitalized on the construction of facilities  to test constructive solutions using beech, which is the first resource of the Vosges. The project has brought together local expertise, refining and preparing it so it can be implemented beyond regional boundaries.

How can we build in a way that reduces grey energy? The use of local stone is a promising option. But nostalgia is not enough: cheap and clever locally-sourced blockwork is hardly a large-volume solution. In Poitiers, a team worked  together  with local companies to offer innovative concretes made from nearby gravel pits, or formwork stone in order to optimize an inexhaustible, basic resource, which would otherwise be reduced to a few heritage buildings.

Several generations  fought to ensure housing for all. Today, as speculative capital gains take up most of its cost, the amount of resources that should be allocated to it remains an open question.  In this balance sheet, putting emphasis once again on high quality construction is a condition for its sustainability: ultimately, better built housing costs less for the community,  and everyone. Some focus their effort on transferring wealth in such a way, reducing speculation in favour of greater solidity.

Even though  apparently  contradictory, the last point is part of the same political dimension: public policy focused on the middle class, which, incidentally, has been deserted since then. But nothing is being done for those who have nothing  or very little,  who just do not have access to any accommodation, services,  or the city: migrants,  Roma, the most vulnerable, or people without an income. Informal settlements  are identified as a problem, while they actually constitute part of the solution  to situations which  do and will occur, no matter what. Changing the way we look at things, the way we act and support, is also a battle front.

 

[photo copyright] Atelier Belenfant&Daubas, architectes – Construction de l’école Félix Leclerc à Bouvron (44)

[1] Even though we know that part of the wealth created by the cities is spread over the entire territory, either through public budgets and social benefits –
which are dwindling –, or through a redistribution of income and revenues, as demonstrated almost ten years by Laurent Davezies in his book “La République et ses territoires”.

[2] We noted that several economists support this parallelism and this complementarity, rather than opposing “worlds” which benefit from their mutual overlap: for example, Jean-Louis Lavigne about the social and solidarity economy.

[3] “Value is not an intrinsic objective property of real estate which would pre-exist exchanges; on the contrary, it is created by these exchanges,” quoted by Laura Raim in “le Krach de la pensée économique”, an article published in the “le crieur” magazine.

[4] This focus is criticized in particular by economist Philip Askenazy, but also by Benjamin Coriat in the book “le retour des communs”, for which he was the chief editor ( LLL Les liens qui libèrent publishers)